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Sunday, January 02, 2005

Accountable terror?

Ignatieff's analysis of The Lesser Evil relies heavily on the accountability factor in governance, a point that reinforces my sense that modern governance is defined by this core concept.

As his arguments turn to differentiating between state violence aimed at dealing with terror, he makes a strong case for the defining role of adversarial justification in contemporary liberal democracies. The point is made most explicitly in his discussion in Chapter 4 (p. 109):

"The liberal state and its terrorist enemy stand under very different obligations to justify their actions. The agents of a constitutional state are aware that they may be called to defend and explain their actions in adversarial proceedings, possibly even in court. Terrorists do not stand in any institutional setting that holds them accountable. They may have an informal moral contract with their base of support, a tacit set of understandings of what types of violence are acceptable, and, in particular, which kinds will expose their base of support to reprisal. But this is not the same as an institutional obligation to render an account of your actions. This absence of any institutional obligation to justify helps explain why terrorism so often escalates into extremism for its own sake. Yes, states can be guilty of acts of terror, but it is false to equate the ease with the acts of terrorists."

Underpinning any reliance on "adversarial proceedings", of course, is a strong moral commitment to the institutional context of the liberal state, and here is where one begins to see the real challenge of the war on terror for those who study public administration ethics. Many of my colleagues have been spending so much time in search of some vague standard for ethical conduct (e.g., social justice, equity, etc.) that most now find it difficult to respond to the call for a "state of war" ethics implied in the current preoccupation with homeland defense and security. It seems that the most relevant standard may be in the call for "constitutional competence" proffered by David Rosenbloom and others as a central tenet for educating public administrators.

The problem is whether that is enough, especially given the nature and history of constitutional standards both here (in the US) and abroad. (What I have in mind is the current dispute in the UK over the recent Law Lords decision that challenges the Home Office's policies on detention of suspected terrorists.) And then there is the question of what constitutes "constitutional competence" at the "street level" where situational and moral details get a bit murky.

Oh, so many questions....

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